Failing Your Diet Has Nothing To Do With Willpower

Last week I shared a small glimpse of why willpower isn’t the reason why diets fail, but I think this particular topic deserves a bit more explanation.

This is part two of the Break-Up with Dieting series.

I remember reading a book that was essentially about the ketogenic (keto) diet and feeling completely transformed. The science and research behind it made so much sense to me. Of course carbohydrates were making me fat, what else could it be?

As I was reading this book, I decided to make a list of all the foods that I could or couldn’t eat. Meat and cheese were in, but bread and pancakes were officially out. I bought those typical keto snacks like pickles, cheese sticks, and even berries. Everything else I tossed.

When I decided to finally follow this diet, I gave my mom a call to tell her all about what I had learned from this book. I was feeling excited, because A) I’m actually the person who likes change, B) I’m a huge list person, and C) this seemed like the final answer to my weight loss prayers.

My sweet mother—who has always been incredibly supportive of me—asked me something that stuck with me after that moment.

“Does that mean you can’t have any other types of foods, ever?” 

Feeling fueled by the possible chance of finally losing weight, I told her yes, that does mean I’ll have to cut out foods for good. But that’s what you do when you diet, right? You have to cut out all of the bad foods and never, ever eat them again?

At that exact moment, her question didn’t mean much to me. But as time went on while I followed this absurdly hard diet, I kept thinking about what she said. Am I really not allowed to have pancakes again? Do I have to actually say goodbye to ice cream forever?

You probably can predict where this story is going. After a few weeks of following the keto diet heavily, I decided to cave and have a “cheat” meal. Which then turned into a cheat day. Then a cheat week. And soon, well, I wasn’t eating keto anymore.

When I hit that “rock bottom” part of my never-ending dieting cycle, I blamed it on my willpower. It was my fault that I couldn’t control myself with my eating. I kept comparing myself to others, continually telling myself the lie that I wasn’t strong enough compared to them.

I mean sure, you can argue that some of those people did do some kind of crash to get that glorious before-and-after photo. But I’m here to tell you that it’s not the only way to get healthier and lose the extra weight. We already know dieting isn’t the answer when it comes to losing weight long term, and according to many more studies, our failed willpower actually isn’t the reason why diets fail.

Willpower can’t fight short-term starvation

I specifically learned this lesson by reading the book Intuitive Eating. This book, written by Evelyn Tribole, MS and RD, and Elyse Resch, MS, and RD, is one of the most powerful printed pieces of work I have ever read. Why? Because it helped me to see my unhealthy eating habits from a wider perspective—even if those habits looked “healthy” to everyone else.

At the beginning of the book, they talk about willpower and how forcing yourself to have willpower over your food is actually unnatural to our biology. Here’s why.

Dieting is a form of short-term starvation. Consequently, when you are given the first opportunity to really eat, eating is often experienced at such intensity that it feels uncontrollable, a desperate act. In the moment of biological hunter, all intentions to diet and the desire to be thin are fleeting and paradoxically irrelevant.

Tribole and Resch, Intuitive Eating

When you’re restricting yourself from those pancakes, or whatever food it may be at the time, you’re restricting yourself the opportunity to properly feed your body. This means when you’re finally able to have that “cheat” meal, you are what we typically say is “out of control.” Not because you don’t have any willpower, but because your body is desperately in need of food from that starvation period.

While intense eating may feel out of control, and unnatural, it is a normal response to starving and dieting. Yet so often, post-diet eating is viewed as having ‘no willpower,’ or a character defect.

Tribole and Resch, Intuitive Eating

Does this ring true for you? How many times have you looked at one of these times of overeating and think poorly of yourself? You responded in a natural, biological manner for your body, yet it’s so easy to blame ourselves for not having enough willpower to fight our biological need.

Every diet violation, every eating situation that feels out of control lays the foundation for the ‘diet mentality,’ brick by brick and diet by diet. The seemingly brave solution—try harder next time—becomes as bewildering as the Chinese finger puzzle. You can’t fight biology. When the body is starving, it needs to be nourished.

Tribole and Resch, Intuitive Eating

Your body needs to be fed

I remember walking across the street and breaking my keto diet with a huge slice of New York pizza. It was the best 99 cents I have ever spent in my entire life, and lead to a weekend of constantly eating carbs and drinking beer. I felt unnervingly hungry all weekend and continued to eat until I felt too stuffed to even move. I, of course, blamed all of this on my willpower. But now I understand it was actually my body craving for food after semi-starving it for weeks at a time.

Of course, after all that time and my ultimate refeeding session, I got on the scale to find out if any of it was worth it. I gained 2 pounds since the day I called my mother.

So why after all of this time did the keto diet not work for me? Because my body went into that semi-starvation mode. This probably isn’t news to you, since semi-starving ourselves is kind of the point of a diet. However, while we try will ourselves to say no to food, we’re not tricking our bodies to have that same mentality. According to Healthline, biologically our body will actually see a lack of nutrients and will prepare itself for starvation. Starvation mode, or “metabolic damage,” is what happens to your body when you restrict calories for a long period of time. When this happens, your body will actually reduce the calorie expenditure (i.e. calories burned during the day) to prevent it from actually starving.

In order to gain weight, your body will take those calories (which are ultimately a measurement of energy) and store them into your fat tissues for later use. So if your body is semi-starving and reducing the calories it is burning, that means you’re losing weight at a slower rate. Even if you’re trying to diet.

Your body’s natural response to this is to fight back and crave those nourishing nutrients. So yes, there’s actually scientific evidence as to why you can’t stop thinking about those cookies when you’re on a diet.

Willpower, my friend, is not the problem. Your ability to force yourself not to eat has nothing to do with the fact that you’re having moments of uncontrollable eating. It’s because your body is semi-starved, craving proper nourishment, and forcing you to properly feed it. Just like how a plant needs water and sun, or a car needs oil, you also need proper energy to function. So stop semi-starving yourself in order to get healthy. Instead, let’s focus on how to nourish ourselves in an overall healthier manner. Not in the eyes of our diet-obsessed world, but in a way that will properly love, and nourish, the vessels we live in.

This is part of an on-going series.

I’ll be writing more on this topic as time goes on, so if you want immediate updates from me, get on my email list.

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